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Non-Review Review: Grand Canyon

Lawrence Kasdan is probably more famous as a writer than a director. The talent behind such classics as Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark and… er, Clash of the Titans, Kasdan has made a name for himself as the writer of all manner of big-budget spectacle. However, he has also established himself as a director of much quieter fare, such as The Big Chill and Grand Canyon, an early nineties ensemble drama built around the notion that all of life’s troubles seem relatively small if put in the proper perspective. Occasionally just a little bit too heavy-handed for its own good, it’s still an interesting little piece with a nice cast.

Happy families…

Grand Canyon is one of those films that we don’t really see to often these days, belonging to that prestigious “ensemble drama about overlapping lives (usually set against the backdrop of Los Angeles)” subgenre, which can count films like Pulp Fiction and Short Cuts as among its most popular members. Indeed, there are more than a few elements of Kasdan’s effort which bring to mind Altman’s masterpiece, from the recurring theme of desensitised urban living to motifs like aircraft flying overhead (in the earlier film it was bug sprayers, here it’s ever-present police choppers) and even a nice Los Angeles earthquake.

These comparisons don’t diminish the film, but they stand out as interesting points of comparison. I imagine Kasdan and Altman could have had a very long conversation about living on the West Coast, and I wouldn’t have minded sitting in on it. Of the two films, Short Cuts feels larger and more sprawling (and, perhaps, more ambitious), while Grand Canyon seems smaller, but more intimate. Both seem to share the same sort of perspective on urban living, even if this film feels just a little more positive about human nature.

Do movie producers have a leg to stand on?

Kasdan does raise quite a few interesting points, from matters of race and class to explorations of a mid-life crisis. These are big, grand themes, and ones that need be handled with great skill, lest they feel like some sort of clunky after-school special. I admire the way that Kasdan does address his themes, daring to take them head-on, but also showing a welcome ambiguity and easy-going nature. For example, our lead character, Mack, sets up two of his friends on a date. These are two people who appear to have absolutely nothing in common, apart from their skin colour. Indeed, somebody sitting at the table even asks Mack why he thinks the two might be suitable, and the pair comment on it themselves. “Mack must have some reason to think this would work,” Simon ponders. “Maybe we’re the only two black people he ever met?”

Even mack himself later seems to realise his own short-sighted prejudice, but the movie doesn’t force the situation to blow up in his face. Indeed, through what amounts to sheer random luck, these two strangers actually seem to have a fairly nice date, despite the fact that Mack really had no idea why he was setting them up with each other. “If you’re alive,” Simon explains at one point, “some terrible sh!t’s gonna happen to you and maybe some good things too, but you can always count on the terrible.”The film seems to relish and enjoy those occasional moments of joy and levity, accepting that they are peppered on an increasingly sour cake.

One of a Kline?

One of the lead characters, a movie producer, is the victim of a random mugging, which ends up leaving him with permanent limp and puts him through a painful rehabilitation. It seems like an event like that should be a “transformative experience”, and he does try to turn over a new leaf in its wake, pledging to abandon his violent films. “I can’t contribute another stone to this landslide of dehumanising rage that has swept across this country like a pestilence,” he declares. “That’s a mixed metaphor, isn’t it?” However, as time goes on, he learns to accept what happened and comes to terms with it – adopting a more nuanced personal philosophy.

That seems to be Kasdan’s key philosophy. The world is terrible place, filled with horrible events that happen with increasing frequency. Bad things happen to good people. And it’s getting worse. However, that isn’t the real problem for Kasdan. For Kasdan, it’s the idea that we just accept it. That, as a society, we tend to just passively go along with it. There’s a nice scene where a family in a bad neighbourhood receive a visit from an insurance salesman. He offers low-cost policies that offer a decent pay-off on the death of a child. This is the sort of thing that seems to terrify Kasdan, the way that we fuel and sustain the fear of the outside world. Confronting a gun-totting car jacker, Simon attempts to reason with him, “Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this.”It just seems like most of us have forgotten that.

Food for thought?

It’s a genuinely touching message, and one with a nice hint of optimism. Genuinely horrible things do happen to the cast, and the movie is quick to point out how we often assume the worst about each other – for example, when Claire has “big” news for her son, he immediately assumes that his parents are divorcing. However, the movie does well to focus on a central act of kindness (well, two central acts of kindness), reminding us to cherish those random glimpses of humanity all the more, and regretting that we perhaps take some of them for granted.

As I said, these are fascinating ideas, but the movie does occasionally over-play its hand. I actually really appreciated the soundtrack, which felt like something from the late eighties, but there were moments when things just got a little too heavy. There’s a sequence with lots of slow establishing shots set to choral music which just seems like it’s trying too hard to make us feel sad, while some of the dialogue does seem a little too on-the-nose, such as a conversation between father and son. “You want to be a gangbanger when you’re twenty-five?” the father asks. “Sh!t,” the son responds, “I won’t live to be twenty-five.”It isn’t that it’s an invalid point, but it just feels like it’s handled a little too flatly, a little on the nose.

Quite a cushy life…

The cast is actually pretty solid. Danny Glover is always entertaining, and Kevin Kline has always been a surprisingly solid dramatic actor. Steve Martin plays a nice supporting role, pulling back from his usually outrageous delivery while still managing to be quite witty. I’m a sucker for Mary McConnell and Mary Louise Parker, let alone Alfre Woodard, so the movie certainly doesn’t want for a superb ensemble cast. In fact, I imagine that a lot of the reason why the film works is because of that cast – they make sure that things never get too heavy or reflective, and are all charming and endearing.

Grand Canyon isn’t necessarily a superb film. But it’s a pleasant one, with a nice enough idea at its core. Kasdan occasionally hams it up just a bit much, but mostly keeps everything far enough away from an after-school special. I think I’m honestly just glad to see a sort of ensemble character drama about lives in Los Angeles that isn’t completely soul-destroyingly depressing, but I enjoyed it.

2 Responses

  1. Grand Canyon came out before Short Cuts.

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